Edward Avedisian speaks at the NASSR building, before a plaque dedicated to the late Dr. Vartan Gregorian.

NAASR Virtual Gala Honors Vartan Gregorian

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BELMONT, Mass. — For the first time, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) held its gala virtually due to the ongoing pandemic and restrictions on gatherings in the country and in Massachusetts in particular.

The venerable institution, which since the 1950s has helped found many of the Armenian studies professorial chairs at universities around the US — starting with Harvard — was slated to celebrate the legacies of legendary public intellectual Dr. Vartan Gregorian and philanthropist Edward Avedisian this year. The theme of this year was “Building for Eternity,” in reference to the construction of the organization’s new headquarters, plans for the future, and the symbol of Armenian culture, the “eternity sign,” a representation of which there is in front of the building in the form of a Michael Aram creation.

Avedisian is the primary benefactor of the new NAASR headquarters. When it was suggested by NAASR Board Chair Yervant Chekijian that the building be named after him, Avedisian replied “Who am I? The building should be named for a scholar, like Vartan Gregorian.”

Gregorian had accepted the honor, as well as the invitation to speak at this year’s event, before his untimely passing.

Dr. Noubar Afeyan at the NAASR virtual gala

The gala, like so many other events of the past year, was held “virtually” — that is, it was livestreamed as a Zoom meeting to a group of viewers who signed up beforehand. The program consisted of speeches, video footage of the new building, and montages of past NAASR events and of the lives of Avedisian and Gregorian. A fundraising pitch was given throughout the hour-long program, giving it the feel of a telethon.

Moderna CEO Noubar Afeyan paid tribute to Gregorian. Afeyan, who had worked with Gregorian on numerous Armenian causes, including the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative which they cofounded with Ruben Vardanyan — spoke glowingly of his longtime friend. Gregorian’s unique makeup was the product of the multiplication — not merely the addition — of wisdom, compassion, curiosity, and devotion, Afeyan opined.

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“Vartan redefined the meaning of extraordinary,” he stated, and like a sports hero who redefines the game once in a generation, Gregorian redefined what it means to be a humanist, humanitarian, teacher, and leader. Afeyan also shared one of Gregorian’s favorite quotes, from Bertolt Brecht: “Cursed is the land that needs heroes.” Certainly, this quote unfortunately applies to Armenia and the Armenians now and through most of history.

Chekijian spoke about Avedisian, a classically trained symphony clarinetist, who made his fortune in investments and gives back to the Armenian community through his service on the boards of NAASR, the American University of Armenia, and the Armenian Missionary Association of America. Chekijian shared his own  long history with NAASR starting when he first arrived in the United States from Jerusalem in the 1950s and attended the victory banquet celebrating the establishment of the Armenian Studies chair at Harvard.

Yervant Chekijian at the NAASR gala

As Chekijian described it, Avedisian pushed him and the rest of the board to be more ambitious with the plans for NAASR’s new center. Avedisian had a vision for a world-class institution as the headquarters of NAASR and he has a similar vision for Armenia — to invest in the education of the next generation. For this reason, he has founded a K-12 school named for his parents in the Malatia-Sebastia district of Yerevan, as well becoming a major donor to the American University of Armenia where one of the main buildings is named for his late brother.

A slideshow of Avedisian’s life was accompanied by a recording of him performing clarinet in a classical piece composed by Rouben Gregorian for clarinet and string orchestra. The affable Avedisian then appeared on the screen, sitting in a casual pose next to an image of Vartan Gregorian inside the new NAASR building. He spoke warmly from the heart and his enthusiasm for Armenian causes and NAASR was evident.

Avedisian mentioned that he wanted NAASR to be a home and center for all Armenians, to study, do research, hold meetings, and even relax in the presence of the accumulated knowledge of history. He encouraged an open-door policy to welcome the Armenian community and for the center to truly be a part of the community.

Avedisian also discussed his memories of the late Vartan Gregorian and offered some insights into what made the great man “tick.” One point he emphasized was Gregorian’s motto of “my word is my bond,” pointing out that Gregorian turned down the presidency of Columbia University because he had promised Brown University — in word, not in a contract — that he would stay at the helm there until he raised $1 billion for the school’s endowment.

NAASR Executive Director Sarah Ignatius and Academic Director Marc Mamigonian had opened the program with a video tour of the new NAASR premises.

Ignatius spoke about how her grandfather, Hovsep Ignatius, a native of Kharpert, donated to the first NAASR campaign.

Mamigonian discussed the various ways in which NAASR helps the Armenian Studies community with grants and other programs. He pointed out that while there are an impressive 30,000 books (on Armenian topics) in NAASR’s library, to put it in context, 60,000 books have been published on the American Civil War alone. By that reckoning there is still much work to do in the various fields of Armenian studies.

Various scholars also spoke, thanking NAASR for their support and funding of their work and that of other scholars in the field. They included Dr. Lisa Gulesserian of Harvard, Dr. Houri Berberian of the University of California-Irvine, Dr. Sebouh Aslanian of UCLA, PhD student Carla Kekejian of the University of Utah, and Tufts graduate Olivia Hintlian. Dr. Theo Maarten van Lint, Armenian Chair at Oxford University, gave a particularly touching message, describing NAASR as a “decisive force for good” in the academic community and in the world.

Dr. Nazareth Darakjian representing the Armenian Missionary Association of America, and AUA president Dr. Karin Markides, both spoke about Avedisian and thanked him for his many contributions to their respective organizations.

The gala was concluded by final messages from Chekijian, Ignatius, and Mamigonian.

 

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